Clerical Narcissism: Myth or Mess?

“Narcissist” is the new n-word. Unmatched for versatility, it can mean everything from “won’t text me back” to “queer as a three-dollar bill.” Once upon a time, disagreeable people could hope to be labeled neurotics or paranoiacs; no longer. Members of my generation are fully committed to watching each other watch themselves.

Just recently, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny deployed the term against the Vatican. Referring to a letter from the Holy See to the bishop of Cloyne, purportedly relieving him of the obligation to inform police of sex abuse allegations made against priests, Kenny thundered against the “dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.”

On one level, Kenny’s meaning is perfectly obvious. The Vatican, by his lights, was determined to protect its own interests at society’s expense. That kind of narcissism is the narcissism of Goldman Sachs, Union Carbide and the Nixon administration.

But coupled with the word “elitism,“ it seems to hint at something more serious. Russell Shaw spells it out fully when he defines “clericalism” as “an elitist mindset, together with structures and patterns of behavior corresponding to it, which takes it for granted that clerics—in the Catholic context, mainly bishops and priests—are intrinsically superior to the other members of the Church and deserve automatic deference.”

To me, anyway, the conviction that some people simply count more than others would seem a much profounder kind of narcissism. At some point during his adventures, Huck Finn invents a story about riverboating accident. When his audience, a kindhearted and credulous woman, asks whether anyone was hurt, he answers, “No’m. Killed a nigger.” That’s about as stark — and in a grim way, as funny — a portrayal of the mentality as you’ll ever find.

But according to some observers, it gets worse — much worse. Last year, James Carroll argued that certain disciplines governing the priesthood — in particular mandatory celibacy — fertilize the individual personality for the growth of narcissistic traits. He writes: “immaturity, narcissism, misogyny, incapacity for intimacy, illusions about sexual morality — such all-too-common characteristics of today’s Catholic clergy are directly tied to the inhuman asexuality that is put before them as an ideal.”

Since Carroll actually was a priest — in the Congregation of St. Paul, an order for which I have a very high regard — I have to wonder whether there‘s any truth in what he says. I‘m not taking a position against celibacy, or for that matter, in favor of it. But I am curious to know whether a certain excessive self-regard might be a priestly occupational hazard.

This sort of question is bound to elicit defensive responses, and for good reason: nobody wants to hear, “You’re all a bunch of preening jerks” much less “you’re all a bunch of sex abuse abettors.” Before anyone imagines I’m saying either, let me throw in couple of qualifiers. First, where priests are concerned, imposing any collective sense of guilt is the very last thing I want to do. The mistakes of the institutional Church have much less interest for me than the experience of the individual priest, whom I take on faith to be an essentially good guy who wants only to do right. If any Church norms or practices do, in fact, encourage priests to adopt a narcissistic self-concept, I am assuming they adopt it unwittingly and probably unwillingly.

Second, narcissism happens to the best of us. Every group of professionals with arcane knowledge and its own old-boy network runs a danger of developing a pathologically inflated opinion of itself and the perks it deserves. Surgeons are often said — in particular by nurses — to believe in their own divinity. Where to start with lawyers? My own hands are far from clean here. After I’d worked for just as short time as a loan officer, it felt perfectly natural to think, “Gee, I hope this borrower is stupid enough to let me stack on the points” in almost those very words. When one borrower’s wife went into cardiac arrest, forcing him to cancel his signing, my only thought was, “Why me, O Lord?”

I’ll throw out another bone. I was once photographed between two people suffering from neurofibromatosis. When I saw the picture, all I could think was, “My God, I look awful.”

Third, I’m not asking out of rhetorical mock ignorance. I’m asking out of real ignorance. If it seems improbable that any fully functioning Catholic should know so little about the sacerdotal headspace, bear in mind that I entered the Church right in the middle of a vocations crisis. The priests in my orbit are few, and usually overworked. They don’t have time for much more than an after-Mass handshake, and there’s little to be learned from one of those. I know that Fr. Andrew Greeley and A.W. Richard Sipe have written extensively on the inner realities of the clerical life, but — inexcusably — I haven’t gotten around to reading them yet.

Instead, I go right to the source. To those of my readers who are priests and seminarians, I ask: does that tight collar sometimes make your head swell? If so, have you worked out some routine for getting back to normal? Remember, the Catholic Church is the only place on earth where people thank you for sharing and mean it.

Warning: This is a sensitive subject. There is to be no flamethrowing. Post anything obnoxious, and I will delete it. Protest, and I will ban you.

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